A brilliant visual essay about the costs, benefits and history of the vast, invisible world of government secrecy.
Directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss
Produced by Redacted Pictures
Editor and Co-Producer: Chyld King
Music: John Kusiak
Director of Photography: Austin de Besche and Stephen McCarthy
In a single recent year the U.S. classified about five times the number of pages added to the Library of Congress. We live in a world where the production of secret knowledge dwarfs the production of open knowledge. Depending on whom you ask, government secrecy is either the key to victory in our struggle against terrorism, or our Achilles heel. But is so much secrecy a bad thing?
"You can actually feel the movie focusing your understanding of the issues as you watch." Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
Secrecy saves: counter-terrorist intelligence officers recall with fury how a newspaper article describing National Security Agency abilities directly led to the loss of information that could have avoided the terrorist killing of 241 soldiers in Beirut late in October 1983. Secrecy guards against wanton nuclear proliferation, against the spread of biological and chemical weapons. Secrecy is central to our ability to wage an effective war against terrorism.
Secrecy corrupts. From extraordinary rendition to warrantless wiretaps and Abu Ghraib, we have learned that, under the veil of classification, even our leaders can give in to dangerous impulses. Secrecy increasingly hides national policy, impedes coordination among agencies, bloats budgets and obscures foreign accords; secrecy throws into the dark our system of justice and derails the balance of power between the executive branch and the rest of government.
This film is about the vast, invisible world of government secrecy. By focusing on classified secrets, the government's ability to put information out of sight if it would harm national security, Secrecy explores the tensions between our safety as a nation, and our ability to function as a democracy.
Note about Short Version: "The 80-minute theatrical version of Secrecy situates the problem of government secrecy within the history of the Cold War, nuclear terrorism, and the insistent drive to centralize power. Secrecy probes the failure of the secrecy system to acknowledge that information circulates differently in a wired-up world; we no longer live in the industrial predictability of the US-USSR confrontation. Ambivalence surrounds the use of secrecy in this dangerous, unstable moment of history.
We made the 58-minute version for class use; necessarily pared down, it is simplified.It hews more closely to the film's three major court cases: the El-Masri case of extraordinary rendition, the Reynolds Case of 1953 which established the States Secrets Privilege, and the Hamdan Case in which the Supreme Court pushed back against the Military Tribunals in Guantanamo." Peter Galison and Robb Moss, producers
Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2008
Copyright Date: 2008
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-797-3
"Soldiers of Conscience and Secrecy offer critical, historically aware discourses on the ethical quandaries raised by contemporary conflict...The films lend considerable credence to their arguments...While both are unquestionably products of a previous era of presidential politics, they refrain from giving the problems they identify the too easily adopted epithet `Bush.' In doing so, they highlight the fact that contemporary manifestations of American power are no neoconservative aberration. Indeed, it seems certain that in the context of a re-branded but effectively unchanged `war in terror,' questions of soldierly conscience and state secrecy will remain pertinent well into the future."
Nicholas Witham, University of Nottingham, Journal of American Studies
"This is a brilliant, beautifully crafted film. It avoids simplistic answers on the question of government secrecy--showing the real human costs that follow from excessive secrecy, but also the toll of careless disclosure. Galison and Moss show that the debate over secrecy is not just a matter of dry bureaucratic policy, but rooted in the ancient human fascination with mysteries, and faith in the power of revelation. This film will be an excellent spur to classroom discussions on democratic governance, ethics, and our response to national security crises."
Alasdair Roberts, Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy, Suffolk University Law School, Author, Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age and The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government
"Secrecy presents a comprehensive, incisive and remarkably even-handed analysis of the tension between the demands of national security and the needs of a free and open society. Tracing the origins and evolution of the modern secrecy state, Secrecy exposes the dangers of excessive government secrecy in the age of terrorism. Although recognizing the legitimate need for secrecy to protect the national security, Secrecy illuminates the extent to which excessive secrecy not only empowers public officials to cover-up their own misconduct, evade public accountability, and distort political discourse, but also undermines the national security itself by preventing informed and effective responses to genuine threats to the nation."
Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago, Author, Top Secret: When the Government Keeps Us in the Dark
"Does the veil of government secrecy secure or impede a nation's security interests? Some people hold strong opinions while others haven't given the topic much thought. This provocative and thought provoking film pits the views of government spinmasters and gatekeepers against those of anti-secrecy and government openness advocates. The result is a balanced and nuanced film that puts such events as the 9/11 attacks, the abuses at prison facilities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the legal challenges of Khaled El-Masri's and others into sharp historical and contemporary focus. A must-see for journalists, educators, students, and frankly anyone looking for an 80-minute primer on the dichotomies and complexities surrounding this highly controversial issue."
R. Bruce Craig, Professor of History, University of Prince Edward Island, Maritime Representative, Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), Former Executive Director, National Coalitionfor History in Washington D.C.
"This thoughtful and thought-provoking documentary places the Bush Administration's post-9/11 responses in a needed broader historical context. Examining key court cases and secret orders and programs, producers Peter Galison and Robb Moss explore how secrecy has undermined accountability, enabled presidents and bureaucrats to pursue policies that violate the nation's core values and at times, harm legitimate security interests and undermine human rights. A timely contribution to the current debate over how best to address terrorist and other potentially serious security threats."
Athan Theoharis, Emeritus Professor of History, Marquette University, Author, A Culture of Secrecy: The Government Versus the People's Right to Know, and The Quest for Absolute Security: The Failed Relations Among U.S. Intelligence Agencies
"Too many Americans are blissfully ignorant of how government secrecy often undermines their most precious democratic freedoms. Although all governments want to protect power by keeping citizens in the dark, it is up to the people to demand openness and access to information. As the nation enters the post-Bush era and a new administration comes to power, it is a critical time for Americans to demand real change, to make government transparent and accountable. The lesson of Secrecy is clear: without such vigilance, government will continue to keep Americans in the dark, and the consequences can be devastating."
Mark Rozell, Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, Author, Executive Privilege: Presidential Power, Secrecy, and Accountability
"This film is truly a monumental work of art. Facts and data backup statements well with balance and duality of opinion regarding the legitimacy of secrecy vs. free open records...An excellent curriculum complement for classes within several disciplines of study...A must see!"
Malcom L. Rigsby, Ouachita Baptist University, Educational Reviews Online
"Offers a balanced and intriguing exploration of the subject...Raises a number of questions that will spark debate. Recommended."
Video Librarian, voted Video Librarian's Best Documentaries of the Year 2009 List
"Secrecy follows in the finest tradition of investigative journalism in documentary films, such as Errol Morris' The Fog of War, Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Darkside and Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight...This thoroughly researched, finely crafted, intellectually sophisticated documentary reinforces the role that documentary filmmakers seem to have assumed: to question, to ferret out the truth where the traditional media outlets and government bodies often fail. Galison and Moss have done this and more in Secrecy."
Cathleen Rountree, Boxoffice.com
"Even more politically trenchant is the articulate policy debate called Secrecy, which tackles what is arguably the key question of the information age--namely how do we reconcile freedom and security? Directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss don't attempt to hide their belief that the U.S. government's increasing obsession with classification does more harm than good and is being used today primarily as a means for the executive branch to avoid accountability. To their credit, however, they also give ample screen time to former CIA and NSA employees who make strong cases for the opposing viewpoint. ...this evenhanded act of advocacy is required viewing for the hundreds of millions of us who have consented to be governed."
Mike D'Angelo, The Screengrab
"Smart and unexpected, Secrecy combines thoughtful interviews with an elegant visual look to produce an incisive examination of some of the key issues of our time."
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
"Illuminating and frightening."
Ian M. Fried, The Seminal
"Timely and layered."
Nathaniel Rogers, Zoom-In.com
"Enlightening and entertaining."
Noel Murray, AV Club
"This is a strong, probing essay that asks necessary questions."
Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe
"Robb Moss and Peter Galison's Secrecy is quiet and discrete in its examination of how contemporary crimes are being papered over, and devastating in both its analysis and its presentation. (It's one of the few recent documentaries to incorporate animation that doesn't make your eyes cross, then roll.) There's a portrait in there of a career military lawyer who does the right thing against the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, and as his appearances increase, his fury grows: he is right, he knows he is right and history will record he is right."
Ray Pride, Newcity Chicago
"Secrecy, from Harvard film-prof godhead Robb Moss and Harvard science-historian brainiac Peter Galison, attracted a very particular crowd (at Sundance): articulate, knowledgeable and borderline paranoid. The film's a balanced polemic (no, that's not a paradox) about our government's rapidly growing fetish for hiding information from its citizens; you can actually feel the movie focusing your understanding of the issues as you watch."
Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
"No less mind-boggling is Robb Moss and Peter Galison's Secrecy, which traces the history of government confidentiality from its origins in the 1940s to its epidemic incarnation in the present day. Although it's not exactly non-partisan, the movie presents compelling, if frequently unnerving, arguments from both sides. Former CIA Jerusalem bureau chief Melissa Boyle Mahle explains, without blinking an eye, that secrecy has the advantage of allowing the government to take action that would seem inconsistent with our ideals if brought to light. Whatever you think of that reasoning, she's hardly the first to think it, just the first to say it without beating around the bush."
Sam Adams, The Philadelphia City Paper
"Secrecy, a documentary about the benefits and detriments of government secrets, is the most powerful film I've seen at the (Philadelphia Film) fest so far. Directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss artfully lay out both sides of the argument...maddening and...devastating...the film hear(s) from numerous disagreeing voices...(and) does so with a distinct voice, incorporating hand-drawn animation and art installations to embody concepts. It also displays narrative verve, keeping its own secrets as it teases out the story... While many of the docs I've seen at the fest explore their chosen topics efficiently, and are compelling on that basis alone, this is the first one I've seen here that seems truly crafted."
David Dylan Thomas, Blogcritics Magazine
"...which brings us to the trenchant meta-historical commentary of Secrecy, which was co-directed by Peter Galison and Robb Moss. The documentary probes the legal, political, and psychological aspects of the American government's practice of classifying information and traces it back to World War II. While presenting arguments for and against tight control, the film gradually becomes something more unnerving than an expose, screed, or 'white paper' summation - Secrecy describes a metastasizing mentality that can undermine both its own goals and responsible democracy."
Nicolas Rapold, The New York Sun
"Filmmakers Peter Galison and Robb Moss are sophisticated enough to avoid easy answers and predictable left-wing outrage, focusing instead on the tough issues raised by the institutional use of secrecy, and turning to a diverse and exceedingly well chosen group of lawyers, journalists and government officials to plumb the depths of this rich, and troubling, subject. Moreover, this is an extremely artful, even elegiac piece of cinema, which makes deft use of animation, expressive music and narrative momentum. Such ambitious technique is rarely put to good use in documentaries - usually it's showy and distracting, often at odds with the weighty themes of such films. Most really strong political documentaries, such as Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, eschew any self-conscious artifice at all. Secrecy goes the other direction, layering its fascinating story with dark beauty, and it merits comparison to the strongest works of masters of the genre like Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War)."
PJ Johnston, San Francisco Sentinel
DVDs include public performance rights.
includes original 80-minute version and 56-minute version, plus 19 interview outtakes with Tom Blanton, James B. Bruce, Steve Garfinkel, Barton Gellman, Siegfried Hecker, Neal Katyal, Mike Levin, Melissa Boyle Mahle, and Charles Swift; extended sequences with Steve Garfinkel & Steven Aftergood and on Pat & Bob Reynolds; and extracted stories on Hamdan, Reynolds & El-Masri; as well as scene selection and SDH captions.
The film's website
Information on the filmmakers and main characters in the film
Awards and Festivals
Video Librarian's Best Documentaries of the Year 2009 List
Sundance Film Festival
Special Jury Award, Independent Film Festival of Boston
Best Documentary, Newport International Film Festival
San Francisco International Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival
South by Southwest Film Festival
Vancouver International Film Festival
Philadelphia Film Festival
Ashland Independent Film Festival
Jerusalem International Film Festival
Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
Palm Beach International Film Festival
Nantucket Film Festival
Woods Hole Film Festival
Warsaw International Film Festival
Québec Film Festival
Wisconsin Film Festival
Delray Beach Film Festival
RiverRun International Film Festival
Maui Film Festival
Camden International Film Festival
Cucalorus Film Festival
Berks Movie Madness Film Festival
Global Peace Film Festival, Orlando
High Falls Film Festival
Western Psychological Association Film Festival
Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival
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... more Reviews
"In a riveting new documentary called Secrecy, former CIA operative Melissa Boyle Mahle tells the damnedest story about how a spy agency can outfox itself by over-classifying its files. Mahle describes how the CIA's Somalia analysts were deprived of intelligence in other parts of the building because they didn't have a 'need to know.' As a result, they were unable to warn U.S. troops that the rag-tag bands ransacking Mogadishu had been trained up by al Qaeda. As a result of that training, they had the wherewithal to bring down American helicopter gunships. 'They were entering the jihad movement,' she says. 'And yet that Somalia analyst never had access to that intelligence.' And so, Blackhawk down. Eight years later came 9/11, famously labeled a failure to 'connect the dots.' Eyewash.The CIA, FBI and others had dots. They hoarded them like marbles. Supposedly, the post-9/11 uber-spook National Intelligence Directorate has solved that problem, although a continuing stream of worrisome reports don't
leave one confident. But filmmakers Peter Galison and Robb Moss are after far bigger game than insider hijinks in Secrecy, which debuted to stunning reviews at Sundance in January...This vivid and disturbing exposure of the human dimension of the conflict between the government's duty to keep secrets and the peoples' right to know deserves a national audience...You may think you know everything there is to know about military tribunals and Guantanamo, for example. But watching and listening to a defense lawyer's account of a prison visit - a story that seemed cut from a movie version of a totalitarian state's justice - gave me a new and visceral understanding of how far we've slid...and (the film's) visual power is almost overwhelming."
Jeff Stein, National Security Editor, Congressional Quarterly
"Among the 100 or so documentaries at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival is the first-rate Secrecy...Marshalling a high-calibre line-up of interviewees from myriad backgrounds, including government, military, CIA and academia, Peter Galison and Rob Moss tackle this multi-headed and opaque subject with equanimity and balance. Poignant interviews with relatives from a landmark case that occurred over a half-century ago place state secrecy within its historical context, with commentators explaining why the 'need-to-know' system of the Cold War is less secure today than an open system where information is more freely distributed. The intelligence failure of 9/11, where compartmentalized intelligence services couldn't see the full picture, is contrasted with the breakthrough that followed the Unabomber's screeds being published in the media. Information is power, but which information should be shared and with whom? And who should decide what should be kept secret?"
Robert Alstead, Common Ground
"The inherent tension that exists between the public's right to know and the government's need for confidentiality in the service of national security is the subject of Secrecy, a powerful documentary by Harvard professors Peter Galison and Robb Moss. In addition to historical footage, the film employs a series of pulsating animated drawings, with the white ink against the black background injecting an appropriately unsettling, even sinister tone. Most chilling is the former CIA station chief who defends secrecy on the grounds that it 'allows us the latitude of action to use methods that are not necessarily consistent with our values as a nation.' "
Jean Oppenheimer, The Village Voice
"In this age of political documentaries, it's always nice to come upon one that strives to be even-handed. Such is the case with Secrecy, which tackles the issue of government secrecy. Is it overused? Does it save lives? Going back to Pearl Harbor in 1941 - which some say could have been avoided if there had been better US intelligence - directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss recall incidents that might have been affected, for good or for bad, by secrecy: the bombing of a Marines barrack in Beirut in 1983, the 1948 crash in Georgia of an Air Force plane that killed three engineers and, of course, Sept. 11, 2001. The directors mix visual innovation with talking heads on both sides of the controversy. Neither side scores a knockout, although the pro-secrecy folks are bloodied."
V.A. Musetto, New York Post
"Secrecy is equal parts history lesson, meditative essay, didactic poem and call to arms. [Secrecy] explores some chilling corridors of the clandestine. Secrecy acknowledges the necessity, in principle, of hiding certain types of critical information. In practice, the film finds much to be troubled about, starting with the momentous 1953 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Reynolds that set the legal precedent for the state-secrets privilege and was later revealed to have been founded on dubious grounds. Developing its analysis of what it calls 'the modern secrecy system,' ... the movie touches on the push-pull dynamic of the government versus the press; the culture clash between those shaped by the cold-war paradigm of information hoarding and those alert to the networked sensibility of the Internet era; the private toll of covering up; and the great danger to the public of secrecy for its own sake."
Nathan Lee, The New York
"A balanced, nuanced approach that eschews polemics or grandstanding and gives different viewpoints the opportunity to be heard and understood...Galison and Moss pulled together a stellar group of interviewees, each with their own unique perspective."
"Extensively researched, Secrecy is an unforgettable documentary that every patriotic American citizen should view. Highly recommended, especially for public library collections."
The Midwest Book Review